There has been a great deal of films produced in the Hong Kong crime drama genre, but also equally prolific criticism in recent years for a decided lack of creativity. Infernal Affairs (Mou gaan dou) rises to the challenge, departing from the accepted crime film formula and instead creating a dramatic thriller with a powerful script, amazing performances, and tension that never lets up. Infernal Affairs is without doubt one of the best Hong Kong crime thrillers to date and has even inspired master filmmaker Martin Scorsese to remake the film for American audiences (see The Departed).
Infernal Affairs follows the story of two talented men on opposite ends of the law, one a mole for the mob and the other, an undercover cop. Lau (Andy Lau) is an ambitious young member of the Triads who infiltrates the police by training to become a cop and eventually rising to become a detective. Chan (Tony Leung) is a cop deep undercover in the Triads for years, his identity so thoroughly erased only his boss Police Superindendent Wong (Anthony Wong) knows his true identity. When a drug deal between Triad boss Sam (Eric Tsang) and Thai gangsters goes bad for both the Triad and the Police, Lau and Chan realize there is a mole in their respective organizations. It becomes a race against the clock, both men trying to uncover who the mole is before each is discovered.
Shot with cinematic panache and written with intelligence, Infernal Affairs is an absolutely riveting film from beginning to end. Virtually every scene is filled with suspense and the script never lets the chase for the mole stop. The cinematography is fluid and sharp, with effective uses of camera movement that give the film incredible style and contributes greatly to the editing. With each passing moment, the need to find the mole leads to desperation and both men take greater chances as time shortens, stopping at nothing to find the other. Foreshadowing is brilliantly used to exacting effect, each scene building upon the other until we see investigation itself become a character, shaping the lives and fates of each character in the story. This also serves the subtle eastern religious undertone of the film, a remarkably tight web of ideology that has the character’s trapped in a continuous hell, played out again and again each time the identities of the two moles slip away from the other side. Even the finale itself, culminating in a fantastic showdown, leaves the audience with both a sense of closure and an unending limbo.
The performances in Infernal Affairs are magnetic, keeping the audience firmly rooted in the story. In particular, Tony Leung’s Chan is brilliantly brooding and the most sympathetic character in the film. Leung displays the perfect matching of angst and duty, making his journey throughout the film very relatable and empathetic. Andy Lau’s Triad mole is intensity incarnate, played with a mix of fiery ambition and near machine-like efficiency that makes his story nearly unfathomable to behold, each scene keeps the audience in awe wondering how far he’ll go and to what end. Triad boss Sam is played with savage ruthlessness by Eric Tsang, often described as Hong Kong’s Joe Pesci for both his stature and menacing performances. Tsang plays the character with charisma and humor, yet it is this same attachment to the character that makes the performance so powerful once Tsang turns on the malice and brutality. Lastly Anthony Wong is brilliantly cast as Chan’s police boss, played with a dogged determination and wisdom, Wong is the driving force behind the police. Wong’s portrayal of the dedicated officer is embellished further by his feeling of responsibility for Chan driving his need to take down Sam.
While largely avoiding clichés with a smart script and enjoying grounded performances from the cast, Infernal Affairs does suffer some small flaws for what is otherwise a solid film. There is some melodramatic excess, limited mostly to one scene that heavy-handedly uses flashbacks inter cut within a performance that should have been unedited. There are also one or two scenes that fall flat, sapping the tautness built in the rest of the story with a scene that is overly long or a piece of dialogue that should have been cut. But such nitpicking cannot reduce the worth of everything the film gets right. At an engrossing 97 minutes, Infernal Affairs is filled with so much tension and explosive acting that it achieves more than films far longer, and with less exposition. The film flows steadily and unerringly toward it’s climax, rarely wasting a scene or a piece of dialogue.
An instant classic of the cops-and-mobsters crime genre, Infernal Affairs has acting, style, intelligence, and tension that delivers a film thrilling to watch and a story audiences won’t want to miss.
Review by Chad Wilson